In many ways, 2014 was a landmark year for the UK’s internet infrastructure.
The furore over Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the heavily criticised government programme that is meant to bring superfast broadband – 24Mbps in the government’s eyes – to 95% of the country by 2017, died down noticeably as the scheme finally started to make progress.
In the back half of the year the success stories came thick and fast as BDUK began to hit tens of thousands of properties, both residential and commercial, every week. The government also began to make noises about how it would address the needs of the excluded 5%.
However, as we shall see, in spite of the progress made there remained much debate over speeds, particularly what speeds actually constitute superfast broadband.
Moving into 2015 there still exists a vocal movement to hold to account the government officials and Quangos behind BDUK.
There can be little doubt broadband coverage and availability, and the digital divide, will remain at the top of the agenda during 2015.
Here, Computer Weekly looks at some of the biggest stories in broadband from 2014.
On Saturday 28 June a mysterious "network incident" crippled BT’s service across the UK, from Cornwall to Lancashire, with users complaining of being unable to access most major websites, including Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Twitter.
Many customers turned to mobile data services to vent their anger, as with BT’s own website and social media feeds among those affected, the telco’s automated customer services phone told people to refer to its unavailable website.
“There were problems with our broadband service earlier today but they were resolved. We're sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused,” a BT spokesperson said.
In October an Ofcom study revealed average broadband speeds over cable connections had now exceeded those provided over fibre for the first time.
The regulator teamed up with broadband comparison site Samknows to conduct the research, which revealed that customers with cable connections were averaging speeds of 43.3Mbps, as opposed to 42Mbps over fibre. Virgin Media topped the speed chart, followed by BT.
The joint report was designed to help consumers better understand the different types of broadband technology available to them, and make better decisions. Ofcom said that the switch was largely due to cable customers switching to faster services.
Virgin Media had already cemented its position as one of the fastest broadband providers in the UK back in February 2014, when it announced a major boost to its network and unveiled a new "up to 152Mbps" product.
The internet service provider (ISP) had spent considerable time and effort building out its fibre network to more than 12 million homes, and said it hoped that offering faster speeds, up from 120Mbps, would attract more customers and bring peace to families fighting over bandwidth.
The then-culture secretary Maria Miller gave the ISP the seal of approval, saying: “Faster, safer home internet from Virgin Media is great news for families across the UK. Families are now downloading films, streaming music and playing games through phones, laptops, tablets and consoles. Higher speeds will enable the whole family to use the internet at the same time.”
Although commercially available speeds are still comparatively low and only a few select locations are able to receive Gigabit internet, scientists continued to push the upper limits of potential speed during 2014.
Early in the year, a BT and Alcatel-Lucent test saw the internet hit speeds of 1.4Tbps on existing lines between the BT Tower and BT’s Suffolk research base, Adastral Park.
The test exploited Flexible Grid technology, which changes the gaps between transmission channels, normally set at 500GHz. By laying an alien super channel of seven 200Gbps channels bundled over the current network and reducing the gaps to 35GHz, the two firms were able to increase speeds by more than 40%.
In March, Ofcom’s annual European Broadband Scorecard revealed while 75% of UK households could access superfast broadband, under a fifth had adopted it.
While the UK had better penetration and acceptance of superfast broadband when compared to the five biggest EU economies, a point seized upon by the then-communcations minister Ed Vaizey, many smaller countries were charging ahead.
Boris Ivanovic, chairman and founder of Hyperoptic, a provider of fibre-to-the-home broadband, said: “The overall conclusion that the UK has the best broadband in Europe is highly questionable, as broadband infrastructure in other European countries – especially in Scandinavia – is far superior to ours at the moment."
In October, retailer Argos teamed up with digital skills charity Go ON UK to offer workships to the 20% of UK adults who still lack online and digital knowledge, and announced it would offer 10,000 free tablets and free broadband.
Chief executive of Argos’ parent Home Retail Group John Walden said the growing digital divide was in danger of sidelining millions, particularly for those over 65, which accounts for 52% of adults not yet online.
The programme will offer a 12-month subscription to TalkTalk broadband to teach programme participants how to use the internet to surf, email, and stay safe on the internet.
At the start of December, BT told a parliamentary select committee investigating rural broadband roll-out that it was recruiting from across the EU to find the labour it needs to meet its obligations under the BDUK programme.
The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee convened to quiz the telco, along with a number of other bodies, about the progress of rural broadband deployment.
From January 2015, applications for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Single Payment Scheme will have to be made online, meaning many farmers in some of the most remote parts of the UK could be in danger of losing access to vital funding.
One part of the UK celebrating its first access to superfast broadband was the Isles of Scilly in Cornwall, where the £132m Superfast Cornwall initiative repurposed a defunct undersea fibre cable – which formally linked Cornwall with Santander in Spain – to upgrade the islands’ network infrastructure.
In July, the project marked a major milestone when the main cable was pulled ashore on the main island of St Mary’s.
Formally, the Isles of Scilly had relied on a radio link with the mainland to access the internet, and its 2,200 residents were quick to welcome the opportunities presented for island businesses and tourism, a mainstay of the local economy.
The BDUK debate has naturally centred on rural areas where there is not always a commercial imperative for private investors to provide adequate infrastructure. In the cities, although slow broadband is still a perennial problem, other providers such as Hyperoptic are rolling out Gigabit speeds with fibre-to-the-home broadband.
In February, Hyperoptic was in full flow, announcing plans to extend its network in London to 35,000 new-builds at 150 developments, and began to look further afield as well, announcing it would roll out to Bristol, Cardiff and Reading.
It said it had chosen these cities based on a number of factors including population density and consumer interest and, during the course of the year, announced a number of other locations, too.
In July, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) hit out at the government’s broadband plans, saying current target speeds and coverage obligations were not good enough, and would not meet the needs of small businesses.
It urged the government to commit to a minimum speed of 10Mbps to all business premises by 2020, and a medium to long-term objective of universal 100Mbps speeds by 2030. It also called for the government to prioritise fibre deployment in designated enterprise zones.
“We want to see the UK government show ambition with its broadband targets and put business needs at their centre. Leaving 5% of the population with a 2Mbps connection in 2017 is not good enough,” said FSB national chairman John Allan.